In early 2010, the idea for the Colorado Collaboration Award was born. Last week, the final selection committee decided on a recipient for the award from a pool of nearly 200 applications from across Colorado, representing a very diverse range of collaborative work. I had the honor of being involved in this process from the first meeting through the final selection and learned a great deal about effective collaboration along the way. Overall, there is some incredibly impressive and successful collaborative work taking place across Colorado and through this process, five things stood out as hallmarks of effective collaboration:
Effective collaboration requires a different mindset than one operating a single organization. Leaders who are over time able to shift their thinking and behavior to work as part of a group to move beyond their organization’s walls are an essential factor in building effective collaborations. Some of these intangible leadership skills include the ability to see the bigger picture beyond a single organization’s mission and programming, willingness to be flexible, ability to work cooperatively as part of a group, and willingness to give up power and control on a regular basis for the good of the collective effort.
A collective vision for the partnership
Whether a collaborative effort is focused on improving the delivery of direct services in a small community or seeking significant change at the system level, partners who have a vision for the future of their work together are achieving the most success. Overall, the most impressive applicants for the Colorado Collaboration Award have been successful because the partners had a vision for creating something that is more impactful than a single organization’s work could ever be and then have worked toward achieving that collective vision over time. In the nonprofit sector, we often think about resources as being fixed – we compete for a slice of a pie that has a fixed size. For these groups, they are instead working together to enlarge the pie by bringing in new ideas, resources and solutions.
Willingness to give up control and power
One of the finalists for the Colorado Collaboration Award is a group of organizations that are consolidating some of their major donor work, believing that if they identify and cultivate donors together, they have the potential to raise significantly more because of the inspiring nature of their collective vision. In casually discussing this approach with colleagues, the almost universal response has been in the vein of “we could never do something like that” or “our donors are our donors.” While it represents traditional practice in the nonprofit sector to protect one’s programs and fund development prospects, the willingness to give up some power and control to achieve something bigger than a single organization could alone consistently showed up as a sign of success.
The right motivation
Funders are often essential partners in building and sustaining effective collaborations. In considering the pool of finalists for the Colorado Collaboration Award, one consistent theme is the role of funders as partners, not as drivers. Sustaining a successful collaboration often comes from building buy-in and commitment that is driven by something other than funding or a funder’s directive.
Deep collaboration is difficult. The most successful collaborations are often focused on very difficult work that takes time. Having the systems in place to resolve conflict and maintaining the ability to weather difficult times by staying focused on the collective vision have proven to be essential to long-term success.
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